Taiwanese film Cities of Last Things goes from the future back into the past to retrace the existence of a man through his relationships with several women at different stages of his life. Though the tripartite, time-hopping structure isn’t exactly new — fellow Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times and Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart come to mind as obvious touchstones — what is different here is that the story is told in fully reverse chronological order, so themes such as memories, nostalgia and the root or source of certain decisions or behavior can all be explored. Though it takes a little while for the film to find its footing, this is an ambitious and, finally, also touching new work from Pinoy Sunday director Ho Wi Ding.
After a literally smashing prologue, the first segment, set in the winter of 2056 in Taipei, looks at the actions of the stern sixtysomething Zhang Dong Ling (Hou regular Jack Kao). He thinks nothing of marching into a hall where a ballroom-dancing competition is ongoing to roughen up the poor man dancing with Yu Fang (Liu Juei-chi) who is technically still his wife because he refuses to divorce her over an incident that occurred 30 years earlier. He also visits their semi-estranged daughter (Shin Yin), who is about to move away, and a foreign prostitute (Louise Grinberg) who seems to remind him of someone he used to know. The most vicious and incriminating scene, however, involves Zhang’s visit to a hospital, where he settles a score with an old acquaintance in a very brutal fashion, though that is certainly not the first — or should that be last? — time that Zhang resorts to violence.
A fascinating character study told backwards.
Since the Malaysian-born, Taiwan-based filmmaker, who also wrote the screenplay, recounts things in reverse chronological order, the lead’s actions don’t immediately make a lot of sense. This gives audiences more time to consider the film’s bleak, dystopian vision of the future, where full-on surveillance has become the new normal. Everyone has a chip implanted in their wrist that includes a camera so there’s a possibility to monitor what everyone is doing at any given moment (one assumes it is the state that is doing the monitoring, though this is not explicitly addressed). There’s also hardware in everyone’s fingertips that seems to have taken over most of the functions smartphone apps provide nowadays. The overall effect is intentionally somewhat disorientating, both because the future doesn’t exactly look like the world we live in now — even though many of today’s tendencies and trends seem to have simply evolved further — and also because the possible causes of the lead’s behavior aren’t yet clear. Viewing this first half-hour feels a bit like the way the police might approach a crime scene without having any sense of the characters or their motives yet, though they will slowly become clearer.
The middle section, roughly set in the present and in summer, sees a young Zhang Dong Ling (now played by Hong-Chi Lee) discover something about Yu Fang (Huang Lu) and a senior colleague of his that will scar him forever. It leads to an odd evening in which the young rookie cop hangs out with a French girl (also Grinberg) he caught shoplifting earlier that day. Almost two decades earlier, in the spring of 2000, mob bigwig Big Sister Wang (Ning Ding) is taken into custody. At the police station, she finds herself waiting next to a juvenile delinquent who stole a scooter. The teenager, who turns out to be the young Zhang, might have more in common with Wang than both realize.
The second part provides the most insight into Zhang as an adult and where a lot of his issues might be coming from. Though Grinberg and Lee have little chemistry, the male lead otherwise delivers an appropriately intense performance as a character who has to navigate and grapple with a lot of different emotions in a single night. The last — and thus earliest — section, finally, sheds some light on Zhang’s childhood and background. The tour de force performance from Ning Ding is crucial here in ensuring the story’s underlying theme of regret finally comes into full view while also significantly raising the film’s emotional temperature, because anger and resentment are replaced by heartache and grief. Wang’s expression when the boy tells her that his mother is dead is heartbreaking while also making subsequent developments, outside in two parallel police cars, all the more tragic.
The director doesn’t quite manage to connect all the dots across the three storylines, at least upon first viewing, and it might initially feel like he’s too concerned with the composition of his elaborate temporal construct to focus on the demands of his story. Especially in the first two sections, there are scenes that feel like they are more free-floating than they are organically attached to the rest of the narrative. But by the end of Cities of Last Things, there is absolutely a sense we have taken in an entire life, in all its emotional complexity and also with all its unexplained mysteries.
The work of French cinematographer Jean Louis Vialard (In Paris, Tropical Malady) is always richly textured and atmospheric, even as the decades, temperatures and times of day change across the segments. His work in the second part, which plays like a kind of tropical film noir shot on gorgeous color stock, is especially noteworthy. Logically, the production design takes center stage in the futuristic segment, even though a clear effort has been made to keep the world recognizable. The closing section, finally, is the one that feels most melancholic and in which Ho’s affinity with filmmakers such as Wong Kar Wai is the most obvious, even if the material is undeniably his own.
Production companies: Changhe Films, Hymn Pictures, MM2 Entertainment, Kaohsiung Film Fund, Rumble Fish, Ivanhoe Pictures
Cast: Jack Kao, Hong-Chi Lee, Louise Grinberg, Huang Lu, Ning Ding, Stone, Shin Yin, Liu Juei-Chi
Writer-Director: Ho Wi Ding
Producers: Ho Wi Ding, Hu Chih-Hsin, Ronan Wong, Winnie Lau, Alexis Perrin, Chen Shih-Yong
Executive producers: Aaron Liu, Melvin Ang, Chen Qi Yuan, John Penotti, Michael Hogan
Director of photography: Jean Louis Vialard
Production designers: Liao Yen-Chou, Maskun
Editors: Ho Wi Ding, Lee Huey
Music: Robin Coubert
Sales: Wild Bunch
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Platform)
In Mandarin, English, French
No rating, 107 minutes